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Just over a year ago, an almost simultaneous set of police raids shut down protest encampments associated with the “Occupy” movement across the United States. At the time speculation raged about behind-the-scenes coordination, but very little substantial evidence had come forward to back up the accusations. Then, just before Christmas, as if as a gift, we suddenly got a glimpse inside the workings of this insidious machine.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, an American civil rights group, released documents they just obtained through the Freedom of Information Act detailing the official response to Occupy Wall Street. These documents, which they’ve provided online, detail hostile and coordinated efforts to portray the movement as a “criminal and terrorist threat” beginning a month before the encampment itself. In a linked effort by the FBI, Homeland Security, police forces, regional “fusion centres” and private security, sometimes united into a single entity: the Domestic Security Alliance Council. The activities of this shadowy alliance included surveillance, meeting with financial industry and school officials and even planning the evictions. One (heavily redacted) page even describes a plot to kill protest leaders with snipers, “if deemed necessary”, though it gives few other details.
As the Guardian’s Naomi Wolfe states, this has reached Orwellian levels. The amount of tracking, surveillance and straight-up brutality involved evokes memories of the Red Scares, Palmer Raids and COINTELPRO. Given how heavily censored these releases are, everyone’s simply using the term “tip of the iceberg”, leaving open the question of how far this conspiracy (yes, conspiracy) actually went.
It’s hard to say whether these evictions were the definite cause of the movement’s eventual decline, but they certainly marked an important turning point. The loss of a physical presence in urban cores was a crushing blow, and not one which could be replaced though a presence online or in the media. What followed was months of decline marked by (now legendary) levels of interpersonal squabbling. Only time and further disclosures will tell if these squabbes, too, were engineered from above (like so many in the COINTELPRO era).
What does this mean for activists, organizers, and anybody who might someday become one?
First, it shows clearly that the government response to political mobilizations is primarily ideological. Occupy was labeled “criminal” and “terrorist” long before any actions took place, to say nothing of actual “crime” or “violence”. Contrast this with any number of white supremacist, pro-life or anti-immigrant groups who not only advocate violence but also actually kill people and bomb things on a regular basis, and the focus becomes pretty clear. Brutal violence against marginalized groups doesn’t threaten the establishment (if done right, it re-enforces it). Legal, nonviolent protest directed against dominant groups, on the other hand, does.
We will never be polite, well-behaved or “nonviolent” enough to avoid these risks. Attempting to be only sets a rising standard of absolutely perfect behavior from demonstrators which ultimately makes it easier to justify attacks on peaceful crowds. No matter how we present it, any serious public discussion of liberation is going to threaten those in power, especially if it “gets popular”. Blaming the victims only pits us against each other and prevents an objective discussion of practical safety precautions.
Second, it makes an important cautionary point about surveillance and security. Long before things “turn ugly” (if they ever do), police and their allies are on the scene. They may claim to be there “for our safety”, to direct traffic to deal with “troublemakers”, but those are only secondary goals. Their primary goal is to film, record and write down every bit of data they can find about those involved, especially the “leaders”, often with the help of naive participants. The information they gather never goes away, and it almost always comes back to haunt people no matter how “peaceful” the campaign. The only way to reduce these risks is to make basic precautions a part of all activism, not just the actions we consider “risky”.
The third and (arguably) most important point is one about “paranoia”. If these documents show anything, it’s that there’s nothing irrational about being wary or cautious of undercover agents and big government conspiracies. I’ve involved with protests for over a decade now, and in that time I’ve seen things I would never have believed existed outside Communist China. “Snatch squads”, agent provocateurs, snipers, beatings and worse. These aren’t just anecdotes, either – they’re verified. Every time protesters are put on trial the state is forced to hand over stacks of “court disclosure” to their legal teams, usually confirming our worst fears and then some. Given that my own name has turned up in trail documents after protests I never so much as passed on a flier for, I always smile a bit on the inside when people tell me I’m being “paranoid”.
Take it from someone who’s had a (very tiny) glimpse – there are few, if any, limits to how far these people will go to keep their wealth and power. If people want to talk about paranoia and “conspiracy theories”, how about we start with a look at the conspiracy charges which are so regularly used against protesters? What’s so interesting in these cases isn’t just what the state does, but the justifications it gives. Always, there’s a presumed threat that protesters are right on the verge of an IRA-style insurrection. There’s always a hidden “arms cache” behind the peaceful blockade, rioters hidden in the march and mad bombers working away in the shadows. For all the threats though, and excepting certain entrapment plots, it’s been a decade or two since any attack of the sort in Canada or America, at least from the likes of Occupy.
These fictitious threats aren’t just symptoms of a hostile and militaristic bureaucracy, they’re an important part of how it works. From self-styled “terrorism experts” to the CIA and top Pentagon brass, far too many are now being paid directly in relation to how dire a terrorist threat they dream up. In many ways (as we saw with the Iraq’s “WMDs”), it becomes like theatre. On the domestic front, these efforts serve not only to promote big budgets for police and other security forces, but also to demonize protesters, the poor, immigrants, natives, people of colour or others while demonstrating a “need” for those who oppress them. Like the divorce lawyer who won’t stop egging you on, it’s a sales pitch and we’d be wise to recognize it as such.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a tale of bureaucrats and cops wasting money on commando gear. Real people are involved, and the consequences for them, their families and communities can be devastating. I’ve seen people followed home by private security consultants, snipers on rooftops, agent provocateurs, even the occasional Kafka-esque arrests and incarceration…and that’s just in Hamilton.
Take it from someone who’s spent a lot of time supporting a lot of friends in a lot of courtrooms – this shit gets real. Nothing makes you look guilty like being the focus of an investigation, no matter how little they find. Binders of pictures and days of recordings show you’re clearly a person of interest. If they cannot find the protesters responsible for a crime, they will arrest the first bunch within arm’s reach. If there are no “leaders”, they will appoint some. If nobody commits any “crime” or “violence”, some will be invented, inferred, or blown entirely out of proportion (like chalking). If you’re poor, you’ll find yourself in criminal court. If you’re wealthier, they’ll launch a lawsuit large enough threaten your home. You’ll probably win at trial, but not before a hellish year or two of bail conditions, legal fees and sleepless nights. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen this happen. Don’t just let it happen to you.
Looking back on my time in early local Occupy assemblies, I was often “that guy” who wouldn’t stop bringing this stuff up. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried harder. I’m sorry to say, if you were publicly associated with Occupy in any way, you’re likely now lists which may never see the light of day. If Occupy suffered more than most, it wasn’t because people were too radical or hostile with police, but too friendly. Everywhere there was a prevailing attitude that “the cops are on our side” and “you only have something to fear if you’re doing something wrong”. Some were even accused of being terrorists or infiltrators for suggesting otherwise. Many seasoned veterans just walked away. This wasn’t just a local issue, it came up almost everywhere, but perhaps not often enough.
In this case, the state didn’t just “take a side”, it launched a counter-insurgency campaign. From the outset, it saw the danger – and open, public critique of the economy backed by a mass, in-the-streets movement. In that instant, things like “free speech” and “public discourse” ceased to matter – it was war, and they couldn’t afford to wait and see how things played out.
The worst possible lesson to take from all this would be to stay home. If we do that, they win by default. Worse yet, we prove that these tactics work, ensuring they’ll be used again the next time people take to the streets. This kind of response from authorities shows we’re doing something right. Nobody suggested that changing the world would be safe or easy, but neither, obviously, is the alternative.
For months now, people have been wondering, is “Occupy” dead? The few active cities which remain have shrunk to tiny fractions of their original numbers, beset by infighting and repeatedly prevented from re-occupying any significant amount of space. Much of the activist world, it seems, has moved on, with the focus shifting to Quebec’s student strike, Russia’s growing anti-Putin uprising and the ongoing plight of Spain, Greece and Italy. The name, the issues, and frequent protests are still making the news, but in many ways, but it does seem to have lost it’s inertia.
Anybody involved in the movement itself can attest to the personal difficulties which arose. Every city faced a slightly different set of issues, but there were some very obvious trends. First would be the development of formal or informal leaderships which came to alienate most participants. Second would be issues of pre-existing power and privilege between participants, (racism, sexism, classism etc) which the ill-defined movement was totally ill-equipped to deal with. And finally there was the central structure of assemblies, melting pots of organizers, activists and citizens who often had very little in common. This was compounded by the ongoing lack of direction and definition and a concerted effort from the Department Homeland Security with local police departments to infiltrate, evict and generally repress the movement.
These are not simply “mistakes” made by participants. They’re structural problems with the movement as a whole. They didn’t just afflict one or two cities, they were present nearly everywhere Occupy set up. Battles like these are a proving ground for ideas, not just a contest to win over the public. Demonstrating an ability to consistently organize people for the basic tasks involved in protesting is a test of both the people involved and the applicability of the ideas. Without it, how can a “movement” be trusted with a larger influence over society? This is why radical ideas are usually set in the context of “struggle”, because if they aren’t, they never leave blog posts and academic journals. At least not for long.
“Occupy” was an attempt at re-branding revolution. This meant conjuring up all kinds of radical imagery on one hand, but attempting to escape the “baggage” of historical movements. The result was a caricature of what people thought a revolution was supposed to look like, without much of the substance required to keep it going. As any veteran activist who took part could attest, one of the most infuriating parts was being constantly lectured on “what works” from people who’d obviously done little beyond reading about these topics from mainstream sources online. In spite of constant fears that a “radical fringe” might make the rest look bad (or perhaps because of them), the ultimate downfall of the movement had far more to do with moderating themselves into obscurity.
A recent post from Adbusters, who helped initiate the first encampent at Zucotti Park in New York, puts things pretty plainly:
Our movement is living through a painful rebirth… “There has been a unfortunate consolidation of power in #OWS,” writes one founding Zuccotti. “This translates into ideological dominance and recurring lines of thought. We are facing a nauseating poverty of ideas.” Burned out, out of money, out of ideas… seduced by salaries, comfy offices, book deals, old lefty cash and minor celebrity status, some of the most prominent early heroes of our leaderless uprising are losing the edge that catalyzed last year’s one thousand encampments. Bit by bit, Occupy’s first generation is succumbing to an insidious institutionalization and ossification that could be fatal to our young spiritual insurrection unless we leap over it right now. Putting our movement back on track will take nothing short of a revolution within Occupy.
As a response, they call for autonomous, self-organized “Flash Encampments” to take action and initative on their own without permission from local “General Assemblies”. Like a number of other recent “tactical updates” from the magazine, this is a timely call. Organizing always involves questions of scale, because groups of a thousand cannot work like groups of ten. As “Occupy” chapters became more entrenched, they attempted to centralize and consolidate local activism in a way which became more constricting than “empowering”. The lowest-common-denominator approach to demands made it very hard to put forward any in-depth critiques or proposals, while the hopeless centralization of municipal activism in one room led to countless explosive personal conflicts which tended to derail almost everything.
It would be hard to argue that Occupy didn’t “succeed” to at least some degree. It raised the issue of nequality and economic corruption to new highs, it lead to an explosion in many types of activism. There is a point, though, where movements must both grow and evolve. People are beginning to realise that there’s no more inherent authority in the dozen “main occupiers” local Occupy camp, or any other self-declared spokespeople, than themselves. That was the real revolution.
The first step toward real “direct democracy” is an acknowledgement of personal autonomy which cuts both ways. That means we’re free to speak for ourselves, but only with the acknowledgement that we’re speaking only for ourselves. Taking “direct action” and breaking all the rules without also surrendering your rule over others is worse than useless, it’s downright dangerous – it leads to monstrosities like the Golden Dawn. Our oranizing efforts need to be based on the admission that they have only as much authority as we’re willing to give them, and only as long as we’re willing to give it. That goes for everybody, and for every organization. Without constantly affirming that collective efforts are based on the free association of individuals, they always tends toward coercion before long.
Centralism is a dead end for social movements, especially those seeking to fight the centralization of society as a whole. Nonviolent resistance groups would do well to learn from violent ones here, who long ago turned to autonomous cell structures because anything else was a very literal dead end for their movements (and themselves). Beyond the inherent vanguardism, centralization imposes practical limitations which are almost always impossible to overcome. On a small scale, a “coordinating committee” can be useful, but even at the municipal level the number of people involved makes any such body an impossible organizational bottleneck. A few savvy activists downtown cannot organize neighbourhood-based groups across even a mid-sized city like Hamilton – believe me, it’s just not possible. Our city is too diverse, culturally, regionally, economically and in a hundred different ways. Any honest self-organization of our population needs to happen at the ultra-local level if it’s to actually represent more than a tiny number of the people. Liberation for the North End is very different from liberation for Dundas, but that doesn’t mean they’re conflicting aims.
This is not an obituary, it’s a call to arms. Whether or not “Occupy Hamilton” is functioning, demonstrations locally have gone from weekly to almost daily as the weather’s improved, and I still see many familiar faces whenever I show up to one. The issues are beginning to diversify – strikes, school closures, solidarity with uprisings in Quebec and others. People are starting to realise that there’s nothing more required to stage a “protest” than a dozen or so of their friends. And so, instead of “taking over”, the movement is “going viral” and becoming something else entirely.
The first step toward liberation is accepting that there’s no leaders coming to save us. This isn’t something we can sign up for or subscribe to. It’s not a club we can join or a card we can carry. And there’s no roadmap or one-size-fits-all models which will work everywhere. This is something we all have to do for ourselves, in our own ways – it can’t be done for us.
So go out there and do it.
A new organisation has appeared on the scene across America, and it’s getting a lot of attention. They’re calling it “the 99% spring“, an organizational effort of major American “leftist” groups to train a hundred thousand people in “nonviolent direct action” in order to “tell their stories”. Rather than a welcome, though, “the 99%” don’t exactly seem happy to see them. From the reception it’s getting, you’d think it were the new Tea Party.
Since I wrote that sentence, a response has come from Adbusters and OccupyWallStreet.org, “officially” likening the two. #DEFENDOCCUPY, an effort to disavow them, has been launched. Since Counterpunch began ringing alarm bells earlier this month, word has been spreading quickly and people are not impressed.
Who is behind this well-funded campaign of co-optation? Bolshiveks? Worse… As people began to show up for the “nonviolence” trainings, they were greeted with tables of Obama campaign materials and local Democrat party politicos posting as (fairly bossy) facilitators. The main push behind this organising drive seems to be the Democrat party and Moveon.org. How do they define “nonviolent direct action”? Organizing people across the nation to record their stories of personal hardship during the recession for use in a a big compilation video!
Sorry dudes, but that ain’t direct action. By definition, that would require action. That same definition would exclude electoral efforts and marketing campaigns. “Symbolic actions” like those are the antithesis of direct action. They’re completely symbolic appeals to power, attempts to take and maintain power, and most importantly, they don’t accomplish anything tangible. Direct action doesn’t have to be violent or destructive, as the long history of nonviolent action proves. It does, however, require actually doing something, or at least strategically not doing something (like moving out of the path of a bulldozer). These guys should leave the anarchy to the anarchists.
Through the wonders of PR, marketing and spin, the Democrats are trying to turn the largest protest movement in a decade into a re-election campaign for one of the single most powerful men on earth. While Obama continues to threaten war in the Middle East, his supporters are invoking “nonviolence” and the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. to drive public support. Somebody was bound to call bullshit.
This is an important reminder of why not to over-rely on simplistic buzzwords which can be easily re-defined by those with more money and influence. “The 99%” always left a little too much up to the imagination. Without actual analysis and critique beyond these vague phrases and symbols, they’re bound to be co-opted and “re-appropriated” faster than than skinny jeans. Politics is a war of words, but it’s also a war over their meanings, especially in this utterly Orwellian age. Without a coherent analysis, there will always be somebody willing to write one for us.
Of course, not everybody is opposed to it, some are demanding they “let Occupy grow“. I hope they’ll be feeling that generous the next time the black bloc shows up at one of their marches. The movement has been increasingly divided in recent months, toward actual direct action on one hand and toward something more like a NGO or political party on the other. Along with this has come everything from national public denounciations (Chris Hedges) to physical assaults (in the name of nonviolence!), in hopes of sanitizing the Occupy movment of any participants who might actually be half as radical as they want to sound. Like usual, those who would be our leaders want us to rage against every authority but them.
As one of those infuriating anarchists many have been working so hard to exclude from ‘their movement”, I’d like to thank these guys. It’s not always easy explaining exactly what’s “violent” about electoral action. These campaign rallies in disguise have done that far better than I ever could. It’s still too early to tell whether this will lead to a renewed passion for all things “occupy” or simply encourage even more of the most radical, passionate and hard-working members to “move on”. Given the exodus back to more traditional radicalism in many cities, “cheapening the brand” in this way is a serious gamble with irrelevance. Whatever will become of the “Occupy” memes, though, struggles in the streets will continue. Mayday is fast approaching, and people are talking about Paris in ’68 again, not just another stinkin’ election. Obama, Mr “hope” himself, has already destroyed our faith in those, in himself and his party. That’s where this struggle started, not where it’ll end.
They’re calling it “the winter that wasn’t” – another record-setting year of low snowfalls and warm temperatures which seems now to have jumped from our prolonged November right into June. Sure, Hamilton had it better than most – we didn’t see our rivers freeze solid or watch whole towns get lifted off the map by tornadoes, but a snowless Canadian winter is no less dramatic. Hamilton has already seen our first smog day before the end of our traditional snowstorm season. Whatever the cause or the consequences, it now seems official that winter is over.
At the end of last fall much of the Northern Hemisphere was in revolt, between the Occupy Movement in North America and the widespread austerity protests in Europe. Though coordinated police actions played a big role in shutting this down, one can’t avoid the conclusion that weather played just as large a role. Even marching in below-zero temperatures can be bone-chilling, and attempting to “occupy” a park can be downright dangerous. In weather like this, however, those actions can be downright enjoyable.
North America is now witnessing a re-awakening. Occupy Wall Street recently returned to Zucotti Park for their six-month anniversary, only to be evicted by police. A small group is now attempting to occupy Union Square. Occupy St. Louis saw mass arrests and truncheons when protesters tried to march away from a park eviction. Occupy Miami protesters staying at a local apartment building found themselves at the end of assault rifles held by foul-mouthed federal agents. Elsewhere, the Quebec student strike continues to rage, especially after one youth may have been blinded in one eye by a concussion grenade from police. Last week, of course, also saw Montreal’s yearly protest (riot) against police brutality, as riotous as ever in light of this tragedy. Montreal police also brought in the riot squad yesterday to clear picketing, laid off, Aveos workers. Canada has also seen widespread protests against the Harper government and his Robocall Scandal as well as the new proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline from the Tar Sands to the BC coast. Huge parts of Italy are in revolt, largely focusing on a proposed high-speed rail line running from Lyon to Turin. The NO-TAV Movement has spread to many cities and throughout the countryside, coming to represent the many frustrations of the Italian people with the EU and their own government on a wide array of issues. Even China is again seeing unrest over Tibet. Oh, and there are General Strikes planned for Portugal (tomorrow) and Spain (next week).
It isn’t over.
In the year since the Arab Spring, and it’s now clear that it’s not just the Arabs, and it wasn’t just that spring. Every act of defiance and repression has only galvanized others, spreading virally through the world’s new digital nerve centres. Traditional kinds of resistance many thought were long-dead have returned all over the globe. Squatting, occupations of public (and private) spaces, general strikes, massive street protests and even outright revolutions. Russia, China, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa have all been gripped, making this the largest wave of protests in generations. As springtime comes again, in a stunningly beautiful and frightening manner, we can only expect it to spread further.
These days, it seems like there’s another protest or action every time I turn around. I don’t know that there’s been a week in months where I didn’t end up at some sort of action or demonstration. A quick look at news-wires shows this is hardly local – the dramatic rise in popular uprisings we saw last year seems to be continuing, and once again is beginning to spread as winter releases us from its grip. In light of all this, it’s time to have a serious talk about where we’re going.
What is a “movement”?
Movements are characterized not just by what they have in common, but also in their differences. What sets movements apart from single organizations or coalition is the diversity of people and groups involved. Unlike political parties or other unified organizations, there is rarely a single viewpoint, platform or plan. Rather, the strength of movements lies in their ability to connect with vast numbers of people on many levels, unrestricted to a single style or venue. This happens through schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and religious institutions, and in each those involved come at the issues with their own perspective and critique.
Movements happen when the attention and action around an issue grows beyond immediate conflicts and into broader public questions. Because movements are able to symbolize more than just the immediate issues they fight over, and resonate with large parts of the public. Think of “black power” or “working class pride”, which soon came to mean far more than the right to sit at the front of a bus, or a few more cents an hour in wages. The ability of a movement to exert pressure on many levels – strikes, protests, legal actions, occupations etc – presents a threat that authorities cannot ignore, and can be very successful at winning concessions on many issues at once. Most of the nicer aspects of living in countries like Canada were won in this fashion – labour, feminism, civil rights – without these and others we would likely live surrounded by the conditions Dickens described. Certain organizations and individuals are often given credit for these efforts, but it’s clear from the actual events that none of these victories could have been won without countless acts of individual initiative at all levels.
Any movement harbors deep divisions over tactics, philosophy and direction. This is crucial, since one group/ideology/plan rarely represents the feelings of everyone present, or even a majority. These divisions allow diverse groups to work together by presenting options for involvement that range far beyond one political party, “mass organization” or insurgent army, as well as limiting the influence of any particular group. As a strategy, it leaves authorities in a constant state of siege without a clear target to strike back at. Any form of resistance, on its own, can be easily defeated if the state throws it’s full weight at it – this is true of strikes, marches, occupations or riots. The groups behind them can be targeted, the actions can be me with overwhelming force and supporters can be villainized in the press. When many groups work together, though, the damage compounds while the effectiveness of any single crackdown shrinks dramatically. The Civil Rights movement needed Malcolm X and the Black Panthers just as much as it did Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – if anything, they complimented each other in many ways, with a dramatic inversion of the traditional role of ‘good cop, bad cop’, a pattern seen repeated from Ireland to India. These examples, of course, are extremes, but the same dynamics play themselves out in most serious social struggles.
If there’s one word which describes the overwhelming strategy here, it’s solidarity. When centralized power negatively affects so many groups at once, the natural response is to ally against it. This works for several reasons. First, because it expands the debate beyond the narrow confines of single-issue politics into broader questions about society. Second, because it forges meaningful and effective tactical alliances which can help everyone involved. And thirdly, because it makes power the target of our actions, rather than each other.
Learning From History
What can today’s new generation of rebels and rabble-rousers learn from the movements of the past? When I look at the “Occupy movement” and others like it, I see may of the same age-old tensions presenting themselves. As northern protesters re-emerge from our winter hibernation, questions of direction are weighing heavily. Some are pushing to raise the tone and take actions into workplaces and neighbourhoods, but others are pushing toward more moderate routes – it’s an election year, after all, and we wouldn’t want to lose our champion, the great Obama. Sadly, too often, I’m seeing a lot of the same mistakes repeated as we’ve seen so many times in the past.
In the media-saturated North American arena, the Occupy Movement holds centre stage for many reasons, from the sheer level of attention it’s received to the broad and inclusive approach which relates many issues to core problems with out society. In many ways, it represents a re-branding of revolution in a very accessible form, detached from the controversial connotations of so many more established groups and movements. While this branding has been enormously successful, there hasn’t yet been a solid definition. After the initial euphoria wore off, it became clear that many participants had very different ideas about what the movement itself stood for and intended to do (which is cool), and simply expected everyone else to go along with it in the name of “unity” (which isn’t). The conflicts we’re now seeing are the result of deep-seated divisions, and how they’re mediated will decide much of whether “Occupy” can continue as an “umbrella”, or whether it will become a participant in a much broader movement.
Occupy did not invent revolution or activism. The tactics, issues and critiques are nothing new, and the echoes of struggles past resound with every step it takes. As someone who has been and continues to be involved (but speaks only for himself), we would be wise to heed the warnings of history and avoid the failures of past movements. So far, the approach has been both innovative and inspirational, but if certain participants get their way, it will go instead the way of Greenpeace and the NDP, and instead of scruffy activists protesting downtown, we’ll have workers soliciting votes and donations.
How Movements Die
When is a movement not a movement anymore? Consider the definition above. When it begins to lack diversity of participants, tactics or issues, a singular organization forms which can only really be a participant in other movements, no matter how large. Any given Communist party would be a good example of this – never totally or successfully engaging with the rest of society, even when they came to dominate. The second way a “movement” could begin to fail the definition is if it’s symbols, organizations or ideas stop characterizing dissent. Sometimes this happens as co-optation of language and symbols (“socialist”, “democracy”), or because the organizations involved have themselves become part of the establishment, like many NGOs, unions and political parties. In practice, all of these factors play a role in demolishing “movements”.
Much of Canada’s labour history happened in Hamilton. From the dawn, with the nine-hours movement rallying in what’s now Victoria Park, to the Stelco strike of 1946 which helped establish union membership in Canadian law. Sadly, like America and elsewhere where unions won this battle, it came at a cost. The large, consolidated unions like those in the AFL-CIO would be able to collect dues from paycheques and collectively bargain for pay and benefits, but at a price. These newly established labour bureaucracies were expected to reign in local direct actions like wildcat strikes and could be held responsible if they didn’t. Within a few decades this victory began to fade, with a decades-long increase in inflation-adjusted wages effectively ending in the early 1970s and showing a slight decline since. This institutionalization, which should’ve been a crowning victory for labour, soon turned out to be more of a neutering, and it’s no surprise that so many working-class people mistrust them today.
The environmental movement suffered a similar fate. I’ve known people involved in Greenpeace from the very beginning, and have always had a lot of admiration for what they did. Sadly, I’ve also known people who’ve more recently fought to unionize Greenpeace fund-raising offices. Along with others like the Sierra Club, they often now end up signing agreements with logging companies. Environmental terminology and politics have lost nearly all meaning – there’s a gas station near here which recently declared itself “green”. Perhaps most frightening, unprecedented levels of international organization at the governmental level have achieved next to nothing after decades on issues like climate change.
There are far too many others I could name. What’s most depressing is how “successful” these movements were (and are) by conventional measures in terms of numbers of participants and influence. They did everything they were supposed to, and yet achieved none of the wider goals.
Why does this happen? Because organizing in this way takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Not only does this drain resources from other areas, but a prime focus is put on control and discipline. This generally happens coming from a rationale of “gaining the support of the public” in ways that objectify the public and supporters like pawns in a giant chess game. At this point, all the “others” involved become a lot less important, and rather than a movement which has come to symbolize the struggles of the oppressed, you have struggles of the oppressed which have come to symbolize “The Movement”. At that point, to the oppressed people in question, this “movement” becomes little more than another set of bosses, who now “own” their activism.
A movement is not defined by the size of its membership, the influence it holds in parliament or the amount of funds in any group bank account. Rather, it’s made up of the links between struggling organizations, the overlap in the issues which drive them and the mass actions and the amount of faith that the public has that it’s collection of symbols, actions and theories can lead to meaningful changes in society. They are always chaotic, and always walk a delicate line between diversity and utter disorganization – but in these traits comes a kind of unpredictability which makes them incredibly effective against “orderly” centralized and powerful organizations. More importantly, such a structure helps keep the focus of our work on “resistance” and not working to create yet another institution which will need to be resisted. Movements succeed by allying people against power, not allying with power against others, or attempting to seize power for one’s own ends. Anything else, and it’s just not a movement any more.
Since Chris Hedges’ infamous article was published at the beginning of the week, the debate it created (“Hedgegate”, or “The Hedgerow”) has grown increasingly fierce and spilled out onto the streets. I didn’t want to have to write an article like this, and I honestly hoped I’d never see so much of this come across the newswires, but now that it has, and especially in light of the ongoing actions in Greece, a continuing response is required.
The Surgeons of Occupy – Peter Gelderloos
Activists and Anarchists from Occupy Oakland Speak For Themselves – Suzie Cagle, Truthout
Video allegedly from Anonymous threatens the black bloc (Seriously?)
When Nonviolence Isn’t
Reports are coming in from recent rowdy protests in Portland that members of the “occupy” movement assaulted and even attempted to arrest members of the black bloc. While some at the march had been involved in property destruction (mostly cars and one high-end restaurant) along the path of the march, others were assaulted just for wearing black. What makes this so outrageous is that it wasn’t an action organized by these Occupy protesters, just something they showed up to.
This fits into a larger pattern of co-operating with police to the point of handing people over, reporting them to police and publicly slandering them which certainly isn’t new, but it’s reaching new heights within the Occupy crowd. The fact that it involves physical acts of violence against other participants in a protest doesn’t seem to bother them, nor do the violent acts of police. In this way, guardians of “nonviolence” have set themselves up as police informants, snitches and even deputies. How long until we see the kind of paramilitary action witnessed in Greece where the parliamentary Communist party showed up with a wall of armoured supporters sporting wooden clubs and iron bars to protect the parliament from demonstrators?
Given the substantial damage caused by police repression in activist communities over the past few years, I don’t suspect this will be a popular choice. Having may friends who were attacked, arrested and even sexually assaulted at the G20 in Toronto, I have absolutely no time for this kind of blatant collaborationism. The solidarity shown by wider activist communities has been crucially important for victims of this brutality, and the issues raised have played a very important role in public discourse across the country, no matter how much bad press rioters got, and this story has been repeated many times around the world. Over the past few years anti-police brutality actions have been some of the most popular and effective at bringing attention to an issue that was otherwise taboo and is incredibly important to many marginalized communities. You cannot talk about “peace” in the ghetto without pointing fingers at police – something conveniently forgotten in all the loving-kindness rhetoric lately.
Reinforcing the Narrative
This characterizations of anarchists as only window-smashing vandals intent on chaos is that it totally reinforces the establishment’s myths about protest and society. By fetishizing ‘non-violence’ as the only viable strategy toward social change, it totally ignores the history of social movements. Whether one talks about civil rights, labour legislation, anti-colonial struggles or the long history of squatted community spaces abroad, these struggles have always gone, on occasion, over the line of polite nonviolent protest. You can thank those rioters for (among other things) your weekends, pensions and (partial) independence from the former British Empire. Beyond this, it attributes far too much power to non-violent actions. Don’t get me wrong, I love peaceful protests, I’ve taken peace-studies classes, given passive-resistance workshops and engaged in peaceful actions many more times than I can count. But to assume that because we’re all peaceful, polite and well-behaved that we will be taken seriously is an incredible leap of faith. Nine times out of ten, such actions get totally ignored by authorities and the media, and that’s a sad fact of activism that any veteran activist can attest to. There are more than enough reasons to ignore protesters without broken windows. I’ve seen protests which were written off in the press for being, among other things, too old, too young, too rich, too poor, too white, too non-white, too rowdy, too boring and having too many hippies. The press slanders protesters – that’s their job. If we want better press, we need to understand that fact.
Activism in today’s media-saturated society today is obsessed with the notion of “image”, particularly through the mainstream media and toward “normal” audiences. This obsession is particularly intense among newer activists, and it’s hard to get through a meeting these days without hearing somebody espouse it. This turns its back on much of what activists have learned in the past two decades about community-based organizing, and why it’s important to reach out to all kinds of people on a face-to-face basis. It makes very questionable assumptions about who “normal” people are (and who, by virtue of being “different”, gets left out) and what they want to see. Above all else, it puts far too much faith in fairytale notions of social change which are supposed to emerge magically once enough attention is focused on the issue.
The obvious question here, needs to be asked “what if we’re completely non-violent and they beat us up anyway?” In that case, we’re told, it would only prove our point and undermine the basic legitimacy of power in the public’s eyes. The problem is, it happens all the time, and no such mass reaction occurs. The press is only too willing to claim that protesters brought it upon themselves, no matter what actually happened on the scene, and even when they do report on the injustices, what’s supposed to happen? Anyone with a youtube account can witness countless acts of unprovoked and unjust police brutality – has this sparked any massive non-violent campaign of resistance? Perhaps a more frightening question comes when we’re ignored, as the enormous anti-war movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was, leading to a untold numbers of civilian casualties. What are we to do if power refuses to change when we ask nicely? Sit by with candles and watch people die? Was that really the non-violent option?
When candles, flowers and kumbayas inevitably fail to bring this peaceful populist revolution, blame is inevitably cast on whoever wasn’t “peaceful” enough. This attitude all too often is used to explain away failures of movements to grow or make progress based on the bad behavior of a few at one of their marches. This victim-blaming strategy ignores all the bad decisions and ineffective leadership involved in said failures, as well avoiding a look at the systemic reasons that they occur. Scapegoating groups within the movement for collective failures never ends well, especially when it’s followed with discussion of purges.
What, by this definition, is “violent”? There’s quite a range, from wearing masks or the colour black to scowling at police, burning flags or just about anything illegal (up to and including refusing orders to disperse). They can include attempting to “de-arrest” comrades who’re being grabbed, holding sheilds or wearing protective clothing. And yet, for some reason, assaulting other marchers and handing them over to the police doesn’t qualify. Clearly, “violcence” is not the issue here, but disobedience and resistance to authorities. This sets the state up as ultimate moral arbiter and places an incredible premium on total state control of the situation (“order”). Even attempting to sheild yourself from batons or pepper spray is “wrong” in the eyes of this subservient ideology. The question remains, though, how do you resist power without disobeying it?
These strategies betray a deeply authoritarian stance. They objectify participants as simply actors tasked with presenting a spectacle rather than individuals with their own thoughts and opinions on how to proceed. By way of implied consensus, constant judgemental moralism and fear-mongering about those who disagree, these views are imposed on movements as the “one true way to revolution”(TM). What results is an often primary focus on policing discussions and actions within the movement. I’ve witnessed more than enough of this personally and can definitely attest to religious fervour with which it’s espoused. I won’t point the finger at nonviolence itself here, since few of my (true) pacifist friends are willing to conduct themselves in this manner – it’s far more common among those who are new, moderate and have watched altogether too much television, or those who seek to use the movement to catapult themselves into positions of status and notoriety. These traits have always served to isolate movements, both from other struggles and the public at large, and there’s really nothing “radical” about them.
Black Bloc: Grow Up
At this point, I feel it’s important to get a few things off my chest. As someone involved in the anarchist movement, and someone who’s been in black blocs before, and as someone who’s frequently defended people engaged in these actions:
Grow the fuck up.
Breaking windows isn’t a revolution. It barely qualifies as a “direct action” at all, and much moreso as the most dramatic of symbolic actions, crying out for media attention and official response. Attacking storefronts and cars from the cover of a crowd is easy – defending crowds from advancing police lines is not. If you’re going to confront the cops, then confront the fucking cops. There’s a big difference between sheilding a crowd and using the crowd as your shields. That isn’t, and had never been what the black bloc is about, and it’s generally why I tend to wear colours to demonstrations these days. You’re not helping any of this.
Let me be clear – this is not aimed at those who hold up shield walls or build barricades to protect crowds, who knock back tear gas cannisters or to those in the long and noble tradition of black bloc medics who treat injured protesters in the midst of all this chaos. Most in the black bloc have tended to maintain this kind of defensive posture. Even in Oakland, the “smashy” actions were mostly limited to the General Strike last November, and in more recent actions had far more to do with shields than attacks on any businesses. Sadly, there’s often been a few who’re more interested in a big smashy spotlight. Not only is this kind of escalation dangerous to everyone around, but it pretty clearly is very divisive, and often ends in disaster, tactically speaking. Our goal should never be to terrify bystanders – whether they be customers inside a bank/restaurant with a big glass window or other participants in a march – which is exactly the effect these actions are having, especially on those less privileged than ourselves.
(I’m not advocating any illegal actions here – that would be against the law, and very silly to publish online. I simply wish to state that there are some tactics I wouldn’t endorse even if it were legal to do so)
Ten years ago, academics and activists defended (some) of these tactics because in the days of Seattle and Quebec. Back then, this was pretty much the only thing that got attention to some very important issues. However chaotic it appeared, it was ultimately a calculated tactic to create a media spectacle. The performance became a ritualized part of protests. Endless debates raged over whether smashing Starbucks windows was “violent”, totally missing the point of whether or not it was effective. The world has changed a lot since then – these issues now have everyone’s attention, and such vandalism only perpetuates stereotypes that we, as anarchists, badly need to shed, and this is something most anarchists I know are more than willing to acknowledge.
In too many ways, property destruction has been fetishized and ritualized, eclipsing all other supposed goals of actions. The depersonalized spectacle it presents only reinforces the same alienated notions of political action as performance. Its proponents all too often act just as much like a vanguard as those I mention above, and rely on ideological rationalizations which are no less ridiculous. The communiques often written after-the-fact are evidence enough of this, with their more-revolutionary-than-thou condescension and fanciful retelling of events. They call out everyone else, then hide behind a sort of radical “support our troops” attitude when it comes to critical reflection on their own actions. This self-aggrandizing ultra-militancy speaks more to a sense of post-modern angst than any kind of effective organizing or resistance. “Propaganda of the deed” has been tried before, and it didn’t work then either.
If you want to be a revolutionary, think about the example you’re setting. It’s high time the anarchist community had a serious discussion about these tactics.
Rocky Road Ahead
The public and the media have a fairly short attention span, and the novelty of occupied parks is quickly wearing off. A precedent has already been set that these encampents can be forcibly evicted, no matter how non-violent, and considerable violence has already been deployed for this task. If the movement is going to continue with direct action and occupation as a tactic, no matter how non-violent, it’s going to involve escalation. An administrative building at McGill University is now home to a group of dissident students, and local labour councils are occupying Conservative offices across Ontario. A growing wave of squatting has already begun, with some success. The possibility that factories, soon, may also be occupied, or widespread resistance to foreclosures or a general strike. With harsh austerity measures being implemented, factories being closed and the possibility of yet another war, the chances for even more popular unrest grow, so do the chances for ugly conflicts. Whichever tactics protesters adopt, the response is likely to be brutal, and demand incredible amounts of courage and solidarity from all of us. This is not a time to burn bridges.
Militancy is not a force anyone can contain, and this is as true of activists and revolutionaries as it is of cops and courts. Resentment doesn’t go away, and suffering is hard to forget. Without effective channels to address grievances, this can only simmer until it explodes, as happened last summer in London. People in crowds do not like seeing the people around them attacked and dragged off by police, and this is even more true when said crowds are peaceful. These actions do challenge the legitimacy of authorities, immediately, in the eyes of everyone present – and that’s exactly why riots happen. Sadly, when vandalism is presented as the be-all-and-end-all of militant action, whether that’s in the press or by activists themselves, it tends to be exactly where people turn when their frustrations take over. The taboo and verboten nature here only makes this kind of spectacular destruction more enticing, like forbidden drugs and sexual acts. That’s exactly why this narrative has to be challenged, and this false dichotomy laid to rest. There are no clear divisions here – there’s been an incredible spectrum of actions, participants and beliefs involved which simply can’t be summed up with tales of the big bad black block anarchists.
There are clearly tactical discussions which need to happen. This isn’t to call for a purge of any group of comrades, or any kind of public vilification. These people are our comrades and friends, and I have no wish to alienate anyone – that’s how you build cults, not movements. The “St. Paul Principles” (established for the RNC in 2008) should be kept in mind here by both ‘sides’. Working with law enforcement against fellow activists is inexcusable (it puts everybody at risk), but it shouldn’t be forgotten that a separation of time and/or space between militant actions and “family-friendly” marches is also a main principle of “diversity of tactics”. There’s more than enough bad behaviour here to go around here, and it’s time to take responsibility for that.
In a new article by Chris Hedges, “The Cancer within Occupy“, he calls out “black block anarchists” in a very big way. With an extensive set of half-truths and utter fabrications, he’s going on the attack against those who refuse to play by his liberal sensibilities, and the internet is now awash with responses.
Among the numerous questionable “facts” brought up by Hedges are claims that “Occupy encampments in various cities were shut down precisely because they were nonviolent” – a curious statement, since Oakland (which clearly was not) has seen some of the harshest repression. Other include claims that anarchists oppose environmentalists, unions and intellectuals (where exactly were liberals during the Nine-Hours movement?). Most laughable is his statement that anarchists oppose “populist movements such as the Zapatistas” – obviously missing the black masks, machine guns and autonomous indigenous villages run by consensus (as one friend remarked the other day – this is pretty much a quintessential anarchist rebellion). With all of these errors in the first two paragraphs alone, one has to wonder: Does Hedges even know what an anarchist is?
Beginning the third paragraph, it’s blatantly clear that Hedges does not. Virtually all of his research seems limited to back issues of “Green Anarchy” magazine (a primitivst publication many anarchists find more than a bit embarrassing). Claiming that “black bloc anarchists do not believe in organization”, he makes his own lack of research and comprehension clear. The “black bloc” is not a ideology, it’s a tactic. Most black-blockers are anarchists (though not all), and there’s never been a coherent set of “black block beliefs”. The black bloc has never been any more unified in ideology than the rest of the anarchist movement. Hedges picks and chooses from different fringes of anarchist thought (John Zerzan, anti-organizationists), creating a straw-man dogma. If Hedges wants evidence that John Zerzan doesn’t represent most anarchists, he need look only at the conflict he cites with Noam Chomsky – who is, by the way, also an anarchist.
Throughout the article Hedges continues to cite mainly Green Anarchy, yet strangely he has no problem taking the word of “his friend”, Derrick Jensen, who writes consistently about the moral importance of “taking down civilization” in thoroughly violent ways. The guy is a one-man pacifist wrecking crew. Jensen’s views and writings aren’t all that different from the most militant ends of the primitivist or insurrectionist fringes of anarchism (though he generally avoids the “anarchist” label and is often accused of being an authoritarian) – for anyone who’s actually read Zerzan, it’s almost impossible to read Jensen’s work without wondering where all the footnotes (and real analysis) went. As someone who’s met Chomsky, Zerzan and Jensen, it’s obvious that Hedges just doesn’t get the nature of anarchist infighting (and puts a little too much faith in Jensen).
Derrick Jensen can bash the black bloc if he wants – he’s free to contrast their petty insurrections with the broad-based coalition of eco-terrorists he proposes in his books (“Endgame”, “Deep Green Resistance” etc), which despite their best-selling status have yet to be conclusively linked to a single bombing, shooting or arson. It may be easy to write off rioters as “amateurs revolutionaries”, but if some would the real “insurgents” care to step up and demonstrate some “real rebellion”, then perhaps their condescending attitude might be a little more convincing. For an avowed moderate like Hedges to use Jensen as evidence here is really nothing but embarrassing.
As for “violence”, the definition Hedges is working by seems to include burning flags and holding shields – but does it include wrestling with black-blockers and handing them over to the police? What about Tahrir Square? Did throwing stones “discredit” their revolution? And if black-clad anarchists rioting is really so bad for movements, why did it prompt him to write such flattering things about Greek protests a short while ago?
Then there’s his paragraph about “hypermasculinity”, another testament to his faith in media stereotypes. As someone who’s been in, near, and around many blocs, they’ve never been exclusively male – women have even more reasons to hide their faces from (mostly male) police. The Oakland actions which Hedges complains about had a “Feminist and Queer Bloc” participating – something he left out. What we have here might be described in today’s popular internet lingo as a “white male gender-baiting fail”.
Hedges basic point contains a fatal contradiction. On one hand, he valorizes nonviolent protests which end up on the receiving end of police violence and openly acknowledges that nonviolence has not prevented many cities from facing brutal evictions. On the other hand, he continues to claim that “violent” protests by the black block instigate (or justify) such repression, which then isn’t valourous. The goal of nonviolence, supposedly, is to de-legitimize the establishment – but doesn’t explain how change is supposed to happen once people have lost their faith in power. Nor does he explain why countless examples of such violence haven’t galvanized the public yet. Worst of all, he claims that a few disorderly protesters “discredits” the hundreds of thousands around them, while ignoring how his own writings perpetuate this sad state of affairs. By essentially taking the side of riot police in these cases totally glosses over what actually happened on the ground, and reinforces all the same stereotypes authorities use to discredit radicals.
People are up on charges, Chris, because they dared stand up for the ideals you claimed to write about. Many (most, in all likelihood) weren’t “violent” at all, however you want to define it. They don’t need one of their self-appointed spokespeople publicly siding with the District Attorney. These words have consequences, and you should know that.
If this were a critique of the illegalist, insurrectionist and primitivist aspects of anarchist actions, like so much of what’s come across the anarchist news-wires in the last few months, I’d be glad to read it. Such an approach might require research with an adult reading level, and the admittance of other (often more prominent) anarchist traditions such as platformism or prefigurative politics. Sadly, Hedges draws no distinctions here – an anarchist is an anarchist in his eyes. There’s lots of problems with most black black block actions, which I have no problem admitting – but these types of critiques have a tendency to “co-opt” movements in far worse ways by shunning less-priviliged participants for not obeying their professional leftist strategists (like Hedges and Jensen), and showing a total willingness to co-operate with the establishment when it suits them. If anarchists frequently oppose leftist organizers, this is why – and any look at the largest unions, environmental NGOs or academic bastions of “radicalism” will yield countless examples of how ineffective and corrupt these self-proclaimed “leaders” can become.
There is a cancer growing within the Occupy movement. Like the environmental, labour and others before it, large parts of the struggle are hurtling towards irrelevance as the ideals it was founded on are being systematically stripped in the name of moderation and “unity”. This implied consensus never needs to be discussed since it’s trumpeted by all the mouthpieces of the status quo already. Opposing ideas treated as taboo, threatening to drive “normal” (ie: middle class, white and very privileged) people away, while the same questions are never asked about the effects of turning popular struggles into political parties and registered charities. The self-serving careerism of writers like Hedges is obvious here – more than willing to invoke revolutionary symbolism for their own purposes, but harshly critical of any actual radicals in their midst. This cancer, if it is allowed to grow, will eclipse all real potential the organization has, like so many before it, and “the masses” (and press) will move on to something more exciting.
Sorry Chris, but in this game, class war is a force that gives us meaning. Anything else, like a Che Guevara tee shirt from Old Navy, is just entertainment.
Some other excellent responses to Hedges’ piece:
Colonizer: A Postcolonial Reading of Chris Hedges – OLA Antisocial Media
I Respectfully Disagree, Chris – Bat County Word
To be Fair, he is a journalist – A Short Response to Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc – Facing Reality
The Folly of Christopher Hedges – Nihilo Zero
I am the Cancer. I am not a Human Being. I am the Beast – Birds Before the Storm
The Atlantic just posted a remarkably insightful article about the conflicts between anonymity and transparency in the Occupy movement. This is a topic which often doesn’t receive enough attention, and while The Atlantic doesn’t get to much depth on the issue, it certainly deserves credit for bringing it up. In a particularly tense cut from Tim Poole’s livestream at Occupy Wall Street, they show some of the conflicts which arise when people don’t want to be filmed. Having witnessed much of the same during my own involvement, and repeatedly attempting to bring these issues up at assemblies, I can definitely attest that is has been an issue.
The explosion of social networking and online media in recent years has led to something of a euphoria regarding the benefits of “free information”. Countless examples of abuse of authority caught on tape have shaken countless establishments. At the same time, we’ve already seen a clear dark side to this – Facebook profiles becoming a standard part of job and school applications, for instance. This technology works both ways, and in a great many ways it’s utterly terrifying.
The issue of cameras at protests has been rising for years, if not decades. Police surveillance has been a serious issue as long as I can remember, taking every conceivable form, from cops with cameras to private contractors, vans with tinted windows and covertly installed surveillance cameras. Protesters with cameras have been able to turn these tables somewhat, by capturing police brutality and other rage-inspiring images. This has been enormously tactically useful. It must be said, though, that confiscating film and footage (or even phones and notebooks) from activists and independent journalists has long been a tactic of police at protests. Nearly any big anti-globalization demo you could name came complete with (often very bloody) raids on the independent media centres. After the way Facebook and other social media was used against rioters in London and Vancouver, or Toronto’s G20, it’s more clear than ever that there are potentially huge consequences for anybody you post pictures of.
I’ve seen this stuff end up in court far too often over the years. Don’t doubt for a second that pictures of you peacefully and legally protesting can be used to convict you of whatever they want, or that surveillance camera footage proving your alibi won’t be made available. None of these institutions “work for you”, and none of them are “on your side”.
As I’ve stated before, there are a lot of reasons to wear a mask at a protest, and even more to avoid having your picture there published. This could come down to fears about your boss, landlord, neighbourhood skinheads or, of course, police. Having your picture posted on public, searchable databases goes well beyond simply showing your face at a protest. Unfortunately it’s often now an unavoidable result of showing up at a protest without a mask on.
Issues like this, of course, bring out all kinds of problems regarding race, class and other forms of oppression. It’s not uncommon to hear white, male and very privileged individuals like Tim Pool state that they’re not afraid of being photographed and are willing to deal with the consequences. That’s cool – but don’t make that decision for others. There’s an incredibly exclusionary aspect to this kind of behaviour. Not everybody is privileged enough to be able to become an online representation of a movement, and treating anybody who has apprehensions about being photographed like they have something to hide isn’t solidarity. It’s an open invitation not to show up if you are actually oppressed in any serious way.
Since images in the media or online are all that many people see of these protests, they’ve become the be-all and end-all of protest in too many ways. As DeBord and Vangiem described decades ago, the representation has become reality. Any sense of practical achievements or effectiveness gets lost or buried while attempting to appeal to “normal” viewers. The spectacle presented exists for the sake of the spectators, for whom we’re all expected to march peacefully and politely into the meat grinder of state oppression. Again, this plays into a lot of racist and classist assumptions about who the viewers are (white, middle class etc) and what they want to see. The worst assumption of all, that this kind of “influence” works as a means of bringing “change” totally devalues the protest and everyone present, while glorifying the media used to report on them.
No amount of Facebook “likes” or letters to the editor will change our situation. That’s why people are at the protest in the first place. If it fails to mean something above and beyond being an effective media spectacle, chances are they won’t be back. I’ve seen this too many times, and trust me, if you want to “give the people what they want”, do something effective. We need something that shocks people out of being passive spectators, not something that re-enforces this role. A serious resistance movement can do that, but that means something beyond inflammatory rhetoric. Can you think of a real resistance movement anywhere which would willingly post this much information about their members? Stating that we’re willing to reveal all of this is a very clear sign to any who would join that we’re not serious about being any kind of threat.
I cringed when I watched the first Occupy Wall Street arrests, as onlookers shouted over and over again, in front of cameras “GIVE US YOUR NAMES” in an increasingly demanding tone. That uneasiness paled, though, to my utter nausea while watching the livestream from Tim Pool. To accuse someone of being violent by blocking a camera’s view is laughable, while the inherent risks of this kind of filming are very serious. Obviously, the mainstream press has no problem getting their hands on it. Never once does Pool admit that he has the option to simply point the camera somewhere else when asked. Instead he plays the victim while demanding to film everything and everyone on behalf of his thousand online viewers, despite their wishes to the contrary. Many of the Arab Spring uprisings were followed by brutal crackdowns, using Facebook and other online media to target protesters. Only time will tell what befalls those here, but there’s no doubt that this kind of “transparency” will play a big role.
Loose clips sink ships, folks, be careful where you point those things.
This has been a grim week for Canadian protesters.
Accross the country we saw evictions of encampments associated with the Occupy movement. Occupy Toronto in St. James was evicted Tuesday after a judge’s ruling Monday ordered them to leave. Eleven people were arrested and all structures were removed. This morning Occupy Edmonton was raided by 45 police, resulting in a cleared park and three arrests for tresspassing (all later released). Similar evictions have also happened in Montreal, Quebec City (Tuesday), Vancouver and Victoria.
This sweep, mirroring raids in the US, demonstrates that there are clear limits to the patience of our overlords. Freedom of assembly, like all other rights in our constitution, can be deemed not withstanding at any point, officially or otherwise. What were the crimes of the Occupy movment? Beyond calling attention to injustice and inequality, these encampments disrupted the “normal flow” of civic life for over a month. They allowed people to sleep somewhere they weren’t paying for and accepted with open arms people were were homeless or drug-addicted, where others wouldn’t. These actions weren’t started or sanctioned by the government, and the protesters didn’t readily bend to the state’s will when asked (what kind of ‘protest’ would it be otherwise?
Another round of losses swept the movement locally this week as the conspiracy trial of G20 defendants concluded, sentencing many to lengthy jail terms. Though 11 had their charges dropped, 6 faced sentences of 3-16 months for their role as “ringleaders”. This trial exposed years of intelligence-gathering and undercover work targeted at activists across Ontario, which has only now been released from a heavily-enforced press ban. Many of those convicted were already in jail before the protests began, following pre-dawn house raids, and the evidence against them mostly related to their anarchist beliefs and alleged ‘counselling’ of criminal behaviour despite a lack of evidence tying them to any of the actual rioters.
Cases like this show the long-term, serious consequences of repression like this. Not all politically motivated arrests involve short incarceration and quickly-dropped charges. Officials are often quite vindictive in how they respond to protests which effectively challenge their positions or policies, whether or not anything illegal actually happened. Guilt in these cases can come in the form of organizing a protest where something illegal happened. It can happen because you share political views with the presumed criminals, or simply views which sound “dangerous”. Guilt can be shown by gruesome jokes you make at the bar, or things you “like” on Facebook.
There’s a convenient myth that “violent” protests bring police repression on themselves. The G20 showed how little police attention gets turned toward rampaging rioters, and how much gets pointed toward softer, “easier” and more peaceful targets. Most of my friends who were arrested were tiny, female, and not involved in the riot, which only goes to show the actual purpose of the cavalry charges and mass-arrests. By terrorizing individuals who dare to support or organize protests like these, the state sends a message to others who would consider joining them. If that doesn’t shake the confidence of a few die-hard radicals, that’s ok. The point is to scare away everybody else. Over the years I’ve seen municipal governments threaten to go after people’s homes, I’ve seen lengthy pre-trial detentions on absolutely baseless charges. I’ve witnessed almost a solid decade of court cases, and the anguish this causes the defendants along with their friends and families. I’ve seen people sued for many times their total net worth. I’ve seen sexual assaults, death threats, and know plenty of people who’ve been shot at. Very few of these people ever had anything to do with any violent actions, and more often than not there were none to speak of throughout the campaigns.
Now do you see the violence inherent in the system?
I’m not writing this to scare anybody, I’m writing it to piss people off. If we stop fighting because of this kind of repression, they win by default. We may need to change our tactics in the future, and we most certainly need to be a lot more careful about how we do things. We cannot, however, give up. Doing so would prove in no uncertain terms that these tactics work, and that they should keep employing them against us. If, instead, we turn these arrests and incarcerations into big, ugly, stinking public messes, they’ll think twice in the future. The G20 proved clearly enough that there are no effective legal ways to deal with police brutality, but also that this doesn’t stop an entire nation of people from getting very upset. They wouldn’t be attacking us this way if we weren’t actually making some progress, and despite the countless instances of police brutality and state repression over the last year, these protests have continued to grow.
“They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body. Not my obedience.” – Gandhi
I just read an excellent critique from BayView, regarding the Occupy movement. In it, Nancy Heitzeg makes some excellent points about the predominantly white and male nature of the Occupy movement’s imagery and critique. As a white male and someone who’s been involved with the Occupy movement, I feel compelled to respond, or at least share my thoughts. This type of analysis is vital to our movement, and it absolutely can’t be shrugged off.
I wish I could say that I hadn’t noticed similar trends. In Hamilton, at least, we’ve tried to be pro-active, by making sure that we passed an acknowledgement of the unpleasant colonial connotations of the word “occupy” through our General Assemly, and have since formed a committee to look into issues of “Accessibility and Inclusivity”. Enough? Hardly. But at least a humble start. The truth is, like all social movements, Occupy is caught between principles and the “normal” and “moderate” ideals of our broader society. These ideals, of course, are far from neutral, and definitely more in line with the interests of the “1%” than the rest of us. But then again, it doesn’t take a statistician to tell you white middle-class males make up a very small percentage of the actual population…
Heitzeg focuses on the issues of prisons and policing, and this is certainly one area I’ve witnessed this kind of thing. Though I might not apply exclusively “white” or “male” labels to all of the comments I’ve heard, they certainly apply to many. Beyond these, I’d also have to argue that many of the pro-police statements I’ve heard aren’t much in terms of class analysis either, or really any kind of analysis. Saying things like “they’re just doing their job” and “cops are part of the 99% too” says a lot about their victims too. Does an arrest or conviction exempt you from the 99%? When people argue that they’re “good guys” and “necessary”, what does this say about all the communities who certainly don’t feel the police are on their side?
We may not be as America, but our own prison statistics are pretty startling, especially when it comes to First Nations. One could argue, I suppose, that oppressing native people isn’t the “real purpose” of our policing system. Given the history of the RCMP, though, that would be a hard argument to make. The RCMP was of course geared at controlling the frontier, especially natives (in the wake of the Riel Rebellion), and the early tasks included things like making sure all native children went to residential schools. Likewise, with policing in the southern US which evolved from slave patrols, and elsewhere (Northern US or Europe) from debtor’s prisons. Racism, classism and colonialism were built into these systems from the outset, and have never been far from the surface – not in the 1930s, 60s or 90s.
Of course the police are not “on our side” and stating otherwise is very alienating to all kinds of people, especially the kinds the Occupy movement claims to fight for. Not acknowledging this is even more alienating. Perhaps most alienating is a complete failure to notice how it all ties into our message. There’s nothing the bailouts and austerity can do, or the associated police crackdowns, which haven’t been a daily fact of live for a very large number of people as long as they can remember. This violence happens every day (as the article notes, an average of one dead American daily), and the effects are crippling, socially and economically in more ways than can be listed here.
The police are only one example of institutions who’s inclusion can become very exclusive to others. Where any gross power imbalance exists, there is a potential for abuse, oppression and exploitation. I certainly wouldn’t want Welfare, Children’s Aid or Immigration officials around, nor would I want to see uniformed jail guards, security personnel or members of certain infamous residential care facilities. This isn’t to say that members of these professions can’t take part as individuals, but wearing a uniform and receiving a paycheque means that their presence is far more than personal. Anybody else present who is at the mercy of those institutions suddenly has to worry about what they’ll report back or keep on record about “troublemakers”. Whatever moralistic judgements others want to apply about immigrants, ex-prisoners or single mothers, the risk to individuals involved can’t be denied. Beyond that, it kneecaps our analysis by forcing us to pull punches on issues of serious systemic oppression for fear of offending the staff at the institutions involved. What’s worst, it does all of this in the name of catering to those with the most power in these situations, at the expense of those with the least. Refusing to criticize aspects of the because we want to “play nice” or not seem too radical is hypocrisy, plain and simple.
People are not equal in our society. That’s abundantly clear economically, sexually, racially, geographically, in terms of age, ability, or dozens of other factors. Assuming equality or imposing artificial “unity” in situations like these only entrenches inequality. This happens by turning all issues into “personality conflicts” between “individuals”. It happens when members of a dominant group cry foul over measures designed to balance the scales (ie: affirmative action). And most importantly, it happens when positions of power become normalized and accepted in ways that make very obvious oppression invisible.
Any critique of the status quo which doesn’t take these issues into account is only half an analysis. Trying to focus on the issue of “normal Canadians” is absurd. There is no “normal” Canadian or American, just a whole lot of individuals. Every issue we face affects different individuals in different ways, and there is no universal experience of oppression. The common ground comes from the fact that we’re all dealing with the same power structure, and far stronger together than apart. We can neither understand nor struggle against this power structure until we understand how it affects everybody, not just people similar to ourselves. Solidarity isn’t about an army of clones marching in lock-step – it’s about fighting a common struggle from a point of incredible diversity. Bringing this up isn’t divisive – refusing to bring it up is.
This is, of course, not a blanket condemnation of the Occupy Movement. Far more, it’s a critique of the ideals of our society which continually do their best to re-assert themselves within it. I’ll continue to be involved, and do what I can to see that these issues are brought up. None of this is a reason to stall in our tracks, but rather to move even farther forward, toward a movement and critique which better reflects the grim realities of the world we live in. This is not hard – we just have to be willing to listen, and the pay-off will be a far stronger, larger and more diverse movement – but only if we’re all willing to let go of our old ideas about what a movement is supposed to look like. True popular movements allow all people to share in the creative side of actions, not just following orders and doing the work.